Jay Dee's Last Days

  • Kelly Carter
  • Detroit Free Press
  • February 25, 2006

The untold story of the noted Detroit hip-hop producer's drive to make music in the face of life-threatening illness

It was near the end of summer 2005, and James Yancey was sitting in a hospital bed at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

He couldn't walk. He could barely talk. And after spending most of the winter and spring in the hospital, receiving treatment for a rare, life-threatening blood disease and other complications, he had been re-admitted.

His body was killing him, and little could be done about it.

It was a grim prognosis, but it wasn't deterring him from tinkering with his electronic drum machine.

In the sterile white hospital room, the tools of his trade surrounded him: turntables, headphones, crates of records, a sampler, his drum machine and a computer, stuff his mother and friends from L.A.-based record label Stones Throw had lugged to his hospital room. Sometimes his doctor would listen to the beats through Yancey's headphones, getting a hip-hop education from one of the best in the business.

Yancey tampered with his equipment until his hands swelled so much he could barely move them. When the pain was too intense, he'd take a break. His mother massaged his fingertips until the bones stopped aching.

Then he'd go back to work. Sometimes he'd wake her up in the middle of the night, asking to be moved from his bed to a nearby reclining chair so he could layer more hard-hitting beats atop spacey synths or other sampled sounds, his creations stored on computer. Yancey told his doctor he was proud of the work, and that all he wanted to do was finish the album.

Before September ended, he'd completed all but two songs for "Donuts," a disc that hit stores on Feb. 7, his 32nd birthday.

Three days after its release, he died.

Yancey, better known as Jay Dee or J Dilla, is acknowledged as the father of the Detroit hip-hop sound. Some people call him a creative genius, and his streetwise but soulful and musically tight production style influenced some of the world's biggest rap and R&B stars, from Kanye West to Janet Jackson to Erykah Badu, many of whom he worked with.

He was a champion of Detroit's urban music scene, and in the mid-'90s, when hip-hop was dominated by the East and West coasts, he put a distinct Motor City sound on the national map -- and provided inspiration to then-unknowns like Eminem, D12 and his own group, Slum Village.

As his reputation rose, he persisted with his distinct connection to the musical underground, serving as a sort-of people's champion of the non-commercial hip-hop scene.

Just as he was poised for even greater fame, he got sick -- a medical odyssey that would put him in and out of hospitals for the better part of four years, racking up staggering medical bills.

The instigator was a rare and incurable blood disease, but the complications were many, including recurring kidney failure, severe blood-sugar swings, immune system issues, heart trouble and what might have been lupus.

While rumors swirled in hip-hop circles that he was sick, the extent -- and specifics -- of his health concerns were largely kept secret. Yancey was not the type who wanted others to know about his problems. Even some of his closest friends didn't know what he did: Death was soon coming.

Since his death, fans have gathered to mourn his passing and celebrate his legacy, a mood that will continue today at a public Detroit memorial service. And for the first time, those who saw Yancey's struggles first-hand, including his mother and doctor, are talking about his final days.

January 2002: Something's wrong

Yancey first realized something was wrong in January 2002 after coming back from a gig in Europe, two years after Slum Village's first national release, "Fantastic Vol. 2." Instead of going to his home in Clinton Township, he went to his parents' house on Detroit's east side, complaining that he had a cold or the flu.

It was unusual behavior. Even as a kid he'd liked his privacy, but that night he needed to be with his mother, Maureen Yancey, hoping that she could somehow make it all better.

He was sick to his stomach. He had chills. And after he lay down, he said he felt worse.

His mother took him to the emergency room at Bon Secours Hospital in Grosse Pointe. His blood platelet count was below 10. It should have been between 140 and 180. Doctors told his mother they were surprised that he was still walking around.

Soon, a specialist from Harper Hospital would diagnose a thrombotic thrombocytopenic pura or TTP, a rare blood disease that causes a low platelet count. Abnormal cells were eating away the good cells. Doctors told him there was no cure or direct treatment.

Yancey stayed in the hospital for about a month and a half. Within weeks he had to go back for the same thing -- a trend that would continue for more than four years.

Despite the looming health problems, Yancey moved to L.A. about two years after he was diagnosed, determined to make music. Some things went well, including a musical collaboration and friendship with the rapper Common, who became his roommate. But he began to feel worse, and he met with a blood specialist who told him that in order to live, he'd have to endure medications and hospital treatments.

In November 2004, Yancey called his mother and asked if she'd come out to L.A. to help take care of him.

Disease leads to kidney failure

Yancey went into the hospital shortly after his mom arrived, and he stayed until March 2005. His mother, who slept at the hospital, never left his side. She began to take the reins of her son's health issues, which included mounting bills.

He had to take anti-immune and anti-inflammation steroids. A medication designed to suppress his immune system gave him high blood sugar, and he was taken off it.

The TTP also led to kidney failure. His kidneys would shut down, spring back, shut down again. The three-times-a-week, four-hour dialysis treatments were sometimes so painful he had to be unhooked from the machine.

Because he was lying in bed for long periods, his legs swelled, making it difficult to walk. He needed a wheelchair or a walker or cane -- the latter he used when he could get out to the music store to look for records, or to a nearby fruit market to get juice or a 7-Eleven Slurpee, a treat. Sometimes he would forget how to swallow and would have to relearn. He lost 50% of his weight.

"A lot of times, just when we would get ready to get going, he would get sick again," Maureen Yancey said. "He was so tired of going back. It was very sedentary. Just watching him, it was sad at times. He couldn't do what he wanted to."

In 2005, weeks before his 31st birthday, doctors diagnosed something that looked like lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect the skin, joints, blood and kidneys. His doctor said it was probably what contributed to the low platelet count and the frequent swelling and pain in his hands.

Sure, those long hospital stays had plenty of undesirable consequences. But it was the inability to touch the music, to pick it out of records bins, twist it and create it, that made those long stays feel never-ending.

The hospital bills mount

Even though he had insurance through the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the cost to keep Yancey alive was steep, and he had to pay much of it himself.

Bills for the lengthy hospital stays topped $200,000 each time. Dialysis three times a week cost $1,800. Each once-a-week shot to raise his hemoglobin cost $1,800. He had dozens of prescriptions -- $700, $900 or even $2,000 out of pocket per bottle. He had large co-pays -- one was $6,700 a week -- because he had to see specialists.

His mother, who today gets medical invoices almost daily, has yet to total up the costs. His plan was to make more music -- he had a project lined up with Will Smith -- to pay the bills and leave money to take care of his Detroit-based daughters, Ja-mya Yancey, 4, and Ty-monet Whitlow, 5.

To pay the bills, Maureen says, she'll work the rest of her life if she has to.

A Detroit friend steps in

Mike Buchanan, better known as DJ House Shoes, first met Yancey in the mid-'90s at Street Corner Music in Beverly Hills. House Shoes worked there and Yancey was a wanna-be music producer on the hunt for albums.

After Yancey moved to L.A., their friendship waned. In early 2005, House Shoes heard the rumor that Yancey was in a coma and might not pull through. He booked a flight to L.A. and packed a bunch of CDs -- random beats CDs, a mix-tape CD that House Shoes had recently released and anything else he thought Yancey would want to hear.

He stayed a week, spending every day in the hospital with him.

His friend looked different -- he was smaller and quieter. House Shoes struggled, not wanting to pry too much about the details of his friend's illness.

"I poker-faced it," House Shoes would say a year later. "It was hard as hell."

At his hospitalized birthday celebration, Yancey got cake -- chocolate, his favorite -- from one of his record labels, Stones Throw. He also got a baseball jersey decorated with Detroit street signs.

Then there was a private gift.

House Shoes called about 35 people in Detroit -- some who knew Yancey and others who'd never met him but appreciated his contributions to hip-hop. He had them leave birthday and get-well greetings on his voice mail.

"Man, listen to this crazy message this girl left me," House Shoes said, bringing his cell phone closer to Yancey's ear.

Then he let them play. All 35 messages. There in his hospital bed, Yancey broke down and cried.

Yancey hides his condition

Yancey kept quiet about how bad things really were.

After that early 2005 stint at the hospital -- the one that prompted hip-hop message boards to report he was in a coma -- he granted an interview to hip-hop magazine XXL for its June edition.

In the interview, he denied that he was comatose, and said that he had gotten sick overseas. "As soon as I got back," he told the magazine, "I had the flu or something, and I had to check myself into the hospital. Then they find out I had a ruptured kidney and was malnourished from not eatin' the right kinda food. It was something real simple, but it ended with me being in the hospital."

Only his doctor and his mother knew how bad it really was.

Detroit rapper Proof, like many of Yancey's friends, never wanted to push it.

"We never really got into the sickness thing. I would be like 'How you doing?' He would be like 'Better,' " Proof said.

The Bible provides comfort

Yancey became more spiritual in the last year of his life.

He and his mother studied the story of Job, which tackles the question of why innocent people suffer, and which biblical scholars interpret to be about faith and patience.

"For God maketh my heart soft, and the Almighty troubleth me: because I was not cut off before the darkness, neither hath he covered the darkness from my face."

His doctor said he had come to terms with illness.

"He didn't want to be a professional patient," said Dr. Aron Bick, Yancey's L.A.-based hematologist, who also is an oncologist. "The treatment was difficult because he would not want to go to the hospital. He was very intelligent. He said, 'I hear you, doc. But here are my decisions about my own life.'

"I admired that on a human level. He got the medical care he needed. He really did not let his medical situation handicap his life. To him, life came first. He made peace with himself before we even knew it. And then he made peace with his mom."

On his 32nd birthday, Yancey spent the day at his L.A. home.

Roommate Common bought him a birthday cake, chocolate, of course. DJ Peanut Butter Wolf and Madlib, friends from hip-hop's underground, came over with a cake in the shape of a chocolate doughnut, to honor the "Donuts" album, which was released that day.

Their visit was brief, because Yancey felt uncomfortable with people seeing him that way.

They left the cake at the door. Yancey had a small piece. It was all his aching stomach could take.

It hadn't quite been a month since he'd left the hospital, and he'd just learned how to swallow again. Because his voice wasn't strong, he sometimes refused to open his mouth. He was shuffling around his home with a walker -- he'd gotten rid of the wheelchair weeks before.

"At that point I really felt like something was wrong, more so than ever," said Peanut Butter Wolf. "Even a few weeks before that he was in a wheelchair, but he was energetic and showing me music and showing me his equipment and talked about moving all of his equipment that's still in Detroit to L.A."

Still, in spite of the pain, he was happy. His one prayer had been answered. This was the first birthday in four years that he hadn't spent in a hospital.

'It's going to be all right'

In the last days of his life, as he shuffled up and down the hallway, he had heart-to-heart chats with his mother. They were quick. But they were thoughtful.

"You know I love you, right?" he said. "And I appreciate everything you've ever done for me."

"You don't have to say that," she said.

He and his mother had developed a ritual that preceded medical procedures: They'd slap high-fives, an indication that everything was going to be OK.

At home, the day after his birthday, he held his hand up for his mom to meet it in midair.

She was puzzled. There was no procedure that day. Why was he doing this?

He continued to motion for her to high-five him, refusing to stop until her hand met his.

Finally, she relented and gave it to him.

"That's what I'm talking about," he said. "We're in this together. It's all good. You're going to be all right. I promise you it's going to be all right."

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